Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

14/04/2012 - 26/05/2012

Production Details

“There are shortcuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them” – Vicki Baum

A fabulous new comedy about the lives, loves and misadventures of a folk-dancing class, A Shortcut to Happiness opens at CIRCA Theatre on Saturday 14th April at 8pm, and runs until 26th May.

Starring a stunning cast of some of New Zealand’s best loved comedic talent, and introducing a very special new face in Elena Stejko who plays Natasha, A Shortcut to Happiness has all the usual Hall trademarks – shrewd observations, much mocking of Kiwis’ curious customs, and of course, plenty of laughs.

The beautiful Natasha, a recent immigrant from Russia, teaches a folk-dancing class to supplement her income, meet Kiwis and improve her English. Among the students are man-hungry Coral, golfing friends Laura and Janet, recently widowed Ned, U3A Bev, and henpecked husband Ray. And after each class they all gather at Ned’s for coffee and a chat ….

Catchy rhythms, funky folk tunes, syncopated steps, and comical calamities are the order of the day as all the characters learn to gyrate with skill and expertise  – “tripping the light fantastic.”

According to Roger Hall, the idea for the play originated at a folk-dancing session that he and his wife sometimes attend.

“At one of those dances I said, ‘I feel a play coming on’, and this woman laughed at me and I laughed too, but at the end of the session I thought, there really is a play here.”

Combined with the quote from Vicki Baum that had charmed him and that he had filed away for future use, and the idea of having a Russian woman immigrant who teaches the class, and Hall found he had all the ingredients for his latest new comedy – A Shortcut to Happiness.

“We see New Zealand through an immigrant’s eyes. There are odd little comments there I hope will make us look at ourselves in a slightly different way,” said Hall. “The play is about discovering the ways of a new country, accepting differences, finding love and dancing your way to happiness.”

And Elena Stejko, who plays dancing teacher, Natasha in Circa’s production, is a perfect fit for the role. She is herself a Russian-born actress who immigrated 16 years ago, and she was one of the key people that Hall talked to during his research on how immigrants found life in New Zealand.

And then, of course, there is the folk-dancing!

Hall finds dance music engaging and hopes the audiences will love it too and find themselves tapping their feet and thinking about taking up folk dancing too.

The cast have definitely been having a ball learning and perfecting all the different routines with their ever-versatile choreographer and dance-master, Sacha Copland.

With its winning recipe of music, love, laughter, dancing and joy, A Shortcut to Happiness is quite simply, another Roger Hall great night out!

Circa One
14th April – 28th May

$25 SPECIALS – Friday 13th April – 8pm;   Sunday 15th April – 4pm.
AFTER SHOW Q&A – Tuesday 17th April

Performance times:
Tuesday & Wednesday 6.30pm
Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8pm
Sunday 4pm 

Ticket Prices:
Adults – $46          Concessions – $38;         Friends of Circa – $33
Under 25s – $25;  Groups 6+ s- $39
BOOKINGS: Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki Street, Wellington
Phone 801 7992  |  www.circa.co.nz


Lighting Design:  PHILLIP DEXTER
Costume Design:  GILLIE COXILL
Choreography:  SACHA COPLAND 

Stage Manager:  Eric Gardiner
Technical Operator:  Adam Walker
Sound:  Paul Stent, Ross Jolly
Design Assistant:  Theo Wijnsme
Publicity:  Claire Treloar
Graphic Design:  Rose Miller, Parlour
Production Photography:  Stephen A’Court
Publicity Photography:  Sacha Stejko
House Manager:  Suzanne Blackburn
Box Office Manager:  Linda Wilson  

2hrs 30mins, incl. interval

Latest offering hits spot in search for happiness

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 23rd Apr 2012

The title of Roger Hall’s latest play currently showing at Circa Theatre implies that he has a formula for finding happiness.  But as one of the characters says part way through the play “There are very few shortcuts to happiness, but dancing is one of them”.  And that is exactly what Hall shows to great effect through his latest offering. 

Visiting themes from previous plays of relationships and older folk finding a mate (Take A Chance On Me) and immigrants fitting into the kiwi way of life (Prisoners Of Mother England), Hall deftly weaves a simple story around a group of disparate people pointing up their failings and foibles which he is a master at.

Natasha (Elena Stejko) is a Russian immigrant who has set up a dance class to supplement her income as a house cleaner and as a way to meet kiwi’s in order to improve her English and learn more about NZ.

There she meets Ned (Peter Hayden), a retired accountant who has recently lost his wife to cancer. Eventually Natasha becomes his house cleaner and then boarder and then the evitable happens. But not before a lot of ups and downs occur between the two with help, and sometimes hindrance, from other members of the dance class. 

These include Coral (Jane Waddell), desperately seeking a man, golfing mates and best buddies Janet (Catherine Downes) and Laura (Donna Akersten) and U3A (University of the Third Age) devotees Bev (Carmel McGlone) with her subservient husband Ray (Tim Gordon).  Sebastian (Matthew Pike), Coral’s latest catch off Facebook, also makes a brief appearance at one of the dance classes.

With numerous Hall one liners and astute observations, but not all of them funny, the strong cast under Ross Jolly’s assured and meticulous direction, pull out all the stops to bring the play to life. 

Age appears to be no barrier for this group of actors as they kick their heels up through a dozen or so dance routines, albeit some very short, expertly choreographed by Sacha Copland. And it is obvious that the cast enjoy playing their roles as much as the audience enjoys watching them.

In the role of Natasha, Elena Stejko is excellent, her poise and self-confidence a joy to watch as she navigates the characters ever changing emotional states.

Just as convincing in a brilliantly executed role is Peter Hayden as Ned, his warmth and humanity totally believable as he tries to deal with the effervescent Natasha.

And while the rest of the cast are just as good mention must be made of Tim Gordon as Ray.  He never says a word through the entire play but the role of a hen pecked husband has never been portrayed as well as Gordon does, making this one of many gems in this excellent and entertaining production of another Roger Hall masterpiece.


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Good chemistry

Review by Lynn Freeman 19th Apr 2012

There were ‘ahs’ from the audience numerous times through this Roger Hall comedy-love story. 

That’s not just because Hall knows his audience extremely well and the right buttons to push. The leads Peter Hayden and Elena Stejko transform what could be an enjoyable night at the theatre, into something special. They are reprising roles they have played before, at Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre, and their chemistry is a pleasure to watch. 

The story – Russian migrant Natasha (Stejko) starts a folk dance class to supplement her cleaning job earnings while she perfects her English. The class attracts a group of older misfits, two widows desperate to find an eligible man, a couple who fill their days with classes, and widower Ned (Hayden). A handsome stranger in the form of Sebastian (Matthew Pike) sweeps two of the women off their feet. 

Meanwhile Natasha’s situation becomes more desperate. She is the polar opposite of the Kiwi stereotype; she is blunt and tactless and she doesn’t see her new country through rose tinted glasses. As a character Natasha could become wearying with her frequent tearful outbursts but Stejko is intoxicating and Ned’s affection for her seems totally natural. He is pure old school, a gentleman but no fool. 

The story is theirs, the other characters are incidental, they make up the dance class and deliver some good lines. 

The actors do a good job with the material but they and director Ross Jolly could all do with toning down the performances a few notches. This would gel better with the charming naturalism of the two leads.

The dance sequences quickly become tiresome (at two and a quarter hours the play is far too long) but Hall lobs in his trademark witticisms on current issues, from the super gold card and blue chip investment failures, to the way migrants’ skills are underused here.  


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Truth wins through

Review by John Smythe 15th Apr 2012

I have often felt that Roger Hall’s plays have more depth and integrity than they are sometimes given credit for by those who do them and this Circa production of A Shortcut to Happiness, directed by Ross Jolly, proves it.

Hall’s premise for bringing a disparate group of mostly senior people together is international folk dancing classes, run in a bland church hall by Natasha, a Russian immigrant who also cleans houses but is desperate for conversation in order to improve her English so she can pass the language exam that will allow her to teach music, which is her greatest love.

Elena Stejko, who created this role in the Fortune Theatre world premiere (and was one of the key people Hall talked to in researching how immigrants find life in New Zealand), brings heartfelt passion to Natasha, grounding every fateful twist in her circumstances in emotional truth: an exemplary performance.

Likewise Peter Hayden draws us inexorably into the very different world of Ned, a retired accountant whose wife died of breast cancer not long ago. It is he who quotes American novelist Vicki Baum – “There are shortcuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them” – and he who helps Natasha to come to terms with Kiwi life and the English language.

As with most romantic comedies, we sense they are destined for each other at the outset but some powerfully written and beautifully acted scenes thwart our hopes and expectations. This, along with a number of other setups that pay off brilliantly, prove what a splendid craftsman Roger Hall is.  

Although the other characters are more reactive than proactive, they are each furnished with a strong back story that allows them to be just as authentic in each situation as Natasha and Ned. And when they are, it works a treat.

At times on opening night, however, some actors undermined the credibility of their characters by demonstrating the idea of them rather than simply being them. It was instructive to hear the auditorium go silent on such occasions – and a converse pleasure to join in the laughter where truth supported a well turned one-liner or the credible release of some stress or tension we believed in.

There is little pleasure to be had in watching characters held up to ridicule and when actors don’t trust the writing, themselves or us to get it, so try to spoon-feed us, it’s alienating. I hope, as the season goes on, the moments thus cheapened will achieve the wholeness and richness they deserve – something this cast is clearly capable of – not least because it will make the production even more entertaining.

Coral (Jane Waddell) is the victim of her ex-husband’s failed ‘blue chip’ investments and, having to count every cent, has come to the classes to find a better man.

Janet (Cathy Downes, who originated the role in Dunedin) is less than ideally married to Tony (unseen) and has brought her friend Laura (Donna Akersten), whose Colin died last year, to the classes. As a foursome they have holidayed, played golf and bridge together, and the quest is to find her a man to reinstate the status quo. This makes for an intriguing and complex relationship as the ground beneath them shifts.

Attending the classes as a couple are compulsive course-joiners and U3A students Bev (Carmel McGlone) and Ray (Tim Gordon). The deeply earnest Bev is fixated on researching everything and leading the way, while Ray – who never gets to say a word – just tags along. Fascinatingly for a virtual nonentity role, Gordon inhabits Ray totally, commanding our empathy and generating great whoops of hilarity as a result: a joy to behold.

Matthew Pike completes the cast in the cameo role of Coral’s ‘Facebook find’, Sebastian, dastardly master of the cool seductive moves. His physicality is spot on but he delivers his lines in the phoney mode of a 1950s musical. We have to hope this too will be remedied as the season progresses.

The dance sequences, choreographed by Sacha Copland, are perfectly pitched to show the evolution of such a class and of each character in the process. We can readily identify with each iteration, assessing how well or badly we would cope with the different demands of each style and sensing the joy of getting into the groove at last. (“Love is a lot like dancing,” Vicki Baum also said: “you just surrender to the music.”)

A revolving stage accommodates John Hodgkins’ dual settings of the nondescript church hall and Ned’s neat apartment, lit by Phillip Dexter. Folk dance music (compiled by Paul Stent and Ross Jolly) accompanies the transitions as the structure looms portentously through the darkness before settling into the background once more.

There are real things at stake for everyone at some level; the happiness each person seeks is in constant jeopardy. It’s the downward pressure that causes the true comedy to erupt, and it is because of the problems the characters face that the joy they – and we – experience is elevating. (Baum again: “In life as in dance: grace glides on blistered feet.”)

(Possible spoiler alert)
One section is especially hilarious for a range of reasons. Early on Natasha dismisses the notion of hoe-down square-dancing as a legitimate form of folk dance. Later, while she’s away sitting her language exam, the class indulges … When she catches them out, the diatribe she delivers against their predilection for mindless “instant fun” devoid of beauty, and the revelation that her true fear is that she might enjoy it, has a strong resonance in relation to the attitudes that have been expressed over the years about Roger Hall’s populist plays. It’s a brilliant riposte from Hall that works a treat in the play, thanks to the honest and unbridled passion Stelko brings to it. (Alert ends – although there is plenty more about this sequence that I have not revealed.)

In its observations of Kiwi life from an immigrant’s perspective, A Shortcut to Happiness offers a contemporary update on Hall’s somewhat autobiographical hit, Prisoners of Mother England, subtitled ‘New Zealand, 1958-1968, or Ten Years Hard’, which follows a group of English immigrants from their arrival in NZ till ten years later. There is many a laugh to be had from seeing ourselves as others see us: a gift Roger Hall continues to give.

The levity to be experienced from attending this play is in direct proportion to the depth of the truths it explores, and on opening night that truth won through to inspire enthusiastic applause and many curtain calls.  


geoff allen April 19th, 2012

Well done Elena and Rodger, look forward to Auckland production. Geoff, Galatea theatre

Graham Atkinson April 15th, 2012

For more years than either Roger or I would prefer to admit I have enjoyed Roger's writings (and in the early days his performing) although in recent times once or twice have felt either the play was unfinished or has left me unsatisfied. Last night I knew that I had just enjoyed Roger Hall at his very best!!

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